JOLIET – Shattered windows, peeling paint and crumbling drywall aside, the rapidly deteriorating 156-year-old Joliet prison is worth saving.
So says Gregory Peerbolte, executive director of the Joliet Area Historical Museum, who got his first, rare glimpse inside the shuttered facility during a two-hour tour Friday with city and state officials.
The group is looking for a new use for the vacant prison. There were mixed reviews, as Joliet's new city manager said the place looked worse than he expected.
But Peerbolte was awestruck by the neo-Gothic guard towers and 20-foot-high limestone walls.
“The Joliet limestone. It practically glows out there,” Peerbolte said. “I know it's not a pleasant place or a place where anyone would hope to spend an extended amount of time, but with the snow and the limestone, it was very striking.”
The prison, which opened in the 1850s, draws visitors from around the world despite being inaccessible to the public, he said. The prison is famous for its appearance in the 1980 film “The Blues Brothers," but more recently its collapsing ceilings and rusted cell bars.
“When people show up [at the museum] they ask, 'How can we get out there? Can we get in the building? How can we see it?' It happens a lot, way more often than people think,” Peerbolte said. “It's the one thing we're consistently asked about the most in terms of other sites in Joliet, but no one can go inside it.”
Kendall Jackson, the city's director of planning and economic development, said there are no quick-and-easy answers to address the building's structural issues.
Officials can't wait much longer to redevelop the shuttered site into a tourism magnet, he said, because the longer they wait, the more dollars it's going to take.
And money is the one thing Illinois and the city of Joliet don't have on hand, he said.
Despite on-and-off talks of redeveloping the prison, the lack of money, along with a $3.8 million price tag required just to stabilize the complex, has placed things at a standstill.
Jim Hock, who became city manager in November, had previously suggested the price of repairs, which addresses structural issues within all seven buildings at the Collins Street prison, could be scaled back if only certain buildings were restored.
Hock also got his first look Friday inside the state-owned prison. Hock said he was “disappointed” in the amount of damage, adding he had watched a videotape before touring the prison, which showed the buildling about the time it was shuttered in 2002.
“It's pretty rundown now,” he said. “Had I walked in not knowing what to expect, it would have been easier to take. ... The roof is leaking in main cellblock. There was ice in the floor. Paint chips falling from the ceiling."
State Sen. Pat McGuire, D-Joliet, said Friday's tour focused on the Joliet Correctional Center's administrative building and its adjacent cellblock, both of which have suffered damage over the years but have the most tourism potential.
Developing the site into a tourist attraction is the ultimate goal, but basic environmental concerns must first be addressed, he said. Soil samples were taken Friday, he said, noting a previous report by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency found elevated levels of metals in select areas where prison industries once operated.
Everyone is still very much in the planning stages, McGuire said.
“Given the state of the state's finances, seeking a state appropriate to rehabilitate the Collins Street prison would be a tough sell in Springfield and here at home,” he said.
Whoever takes over the prison could pursue federal or state grants to help with costs, he said.